Just a decade ago, Venezuela's AIDS program was a model for countries throughout the developing world. Now it's a ruin.
Recently, by way of our friends at the Canadian Positive People Network (CPPN), PositiveLite.com received an update on Venezuela's steadily worsening situation, along with an ask:
"S.O.S. Venezuela: Urgent solidarity needed!" ran the header.
Signed by ICASO Executive Director Mary Ann Torres, the appeal continued:
"There is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the home country of our Executive Director Mary Ann Torres. This is a crisis of many facets, but it is above all, humanitarian: people are dying of hunger. People are dying of preventable, treatable infections. Our friends living with HIV are dying of AIDS.
"ICASO and our friends in Canada, Venezuela, and around the world, call on all of you – we call for urgent, global solidarity. We need to get treatment to the people dying in Venezuela.
"ICASO has been working with service providers and community advocates in Venezuela and directly advocating in any spaces available (UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), IAS2017 Paris conference, and others) for support.
Mary Ann was appealing to Canadians to donate any unused ARV’s they might have, as well as other supplies, to relieve the suffering in her home country.
And I sat there reading and marveling once again at how, in the year 2017, it's possible that so many people with treatable, manageable conditions could be simply left to perish, while their government paints rosy pictures for whoever will listen. And as I did that, I thought it would be good if I could help May Ann get the word out about what it is to be HIV-positive in Venezuela these days, what she's trying to do about it and what challenges she has run into as she tries to mobilize a Canadian response to the health crisis there, particularly as it relates to HIV.
Rob: Hi Mary Ann, thanks for talking with PositiveLite.com about your appeal for Canadians to help stem the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. It’s sort of a big question, but can you just describe for us in broad strokes the situation people living with HIV are facing in Venezuela today?
Mary Ann: Well I think that you have to understand that probably 90% of all medications have been absent from pharmacy shelves for many months, including antibiotics, over the counter pain killers, alcohol, gauze… anything. Anything and everything. Particularly with ARV’s, medications for cancer and medications for liver and kidney disease, which are medications that are provided by the government. But we haven’t had any medication of those sorts for many, many months.
The average stockout is six months for most of the ARV’s. I have a detailed list that I can share with you. There haven’t been any viral load or CD4 count tests for probably now 18 to 24 months because those tests are done by one state lab. In the country, there’s only one that does it. Rapid tests and HIV tests in general very rarely are available. Sometimes through private labs you can get an HIV test as a diagnostic but the government doesn’t have any.
There are no condoms, either male or female and one of the things that’s quite painful is that there is no baby formula. There hasn’t been any baby formula for many, many months, so that has meant that women living with HIV, not knowing their viral loads, if they are undetectable or not and many women that don’t know if they are HIV-positive are forced to breast feed because there is no baby formula. And that means there are many cases now of babies with HIV.
And it can happen that they won’t know until it is quite late, when they present in the hospital with diarrhea or fever or any of several things and then they realize that they have HIV and they are in the late stage of AIDS and there is nothing to do.
And that has happened often in the last year. Often, compared to the numbers before the crisis, when Venezuela had one of the best national health programs or treatment programs in the region, with free universal access to ARV’s, diagnostic, treatment for opportunistic infections. I think it was ‘97 or ‘98, by a decision of the Supreme Court, but now it’s in a shambles.
So that’s where we are. There are 77,000 people living with HIV that are registered to receive treatment.
And they’re not getting it.
They are not getting it. And I think that’s about where we stand now.
Can you tell me about the Aid for AIDS Organization and what part it plays?
Aid for AIDS has had several programs but the one they are most famous for is the Recycling Medication. So for a year they have been recycling medications, mostly in the U.S. and sending them to different countries and they have people that are registered in the program so they receive their medications each month. Now, with the crisis in Venezuela, they have been acting as a facilitator of bigger donations. We just received one of antibiotics that was donated… I don’t remember the name but I can find out.
What they have is that they were able to secure a warehouse in Panama. So the donations that we receive here, and I’ll tell you what I’ve received today, we’ll either send it to the warehouse in Panama and they have another, smaller one in Miami that we can send it to and they take the medication to Venezuela.
So depending on the volume of the donation and on what it is, they will work with the National AIDS Program or they’ll do it directly through their different peer organizations in the country.
For example, I received today 1,000 condoms and a few hundred rapid tests that I’m sending directly to them and they will distribute that through their national partners in Venezuela, because it’s not drugs per se, but rapid tests.
For the drugs it’s a little bit more complicated; there are a lot of regulations under the Venezuelan government for any drugs that come into the country, but we have been successful in the past in working with the National AIDS Program and seeing that the donation goes through the national distribution chains.
That sounds amazing. So how has the Canadian response been so far? And what challenges have you been running into so far in putting together a Canadian response to the crisis?
Well the response has been extremely slow. Today I got the tests, the condoms, some test tubes. I have been in communication with two large humanitarian organizations to see if there is anything that they can do. But it has been very slow from the perspective of individuals. We have received a few small cash donations that will help us take the donations to either Panama or Miami or Venezuela, depending.
But that’s it. It’s been very, very little.
So not much luck in networking with Canadian organizations?
Well I hope it will help a little bit if we can get the word out.
Hopefully, yes. We are a charitable organization so we are able to receive cash donations and to issue official, tax-deductible receipts. So on our page, we’ve got a little place for people who want to donate medication or supplies in general and for people who want to donate cash, if you want to add a link…
I will. Mary Ann, thanks again for talking to us. I hope you’re able to generate a lot of support.
ICASO is working with Aid for AIDS to collect ARVs (and condoms) and send them to Venezuela.
ICASO will pay for shipping costs and in partnership with Aid for AIDS we will ensure the donated ARVs reach the people that need them in Venezuela.
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DONATE YOUR MEDICATIONS:
If you are in the US: Follow these instructions.
If you are in Canada: You can drop-off or send directly to ICASO, 120 Carlton Street #311, Toronto, ON, Canada M5A 4K2
DONATE to ICASO: (Official donation receipt will be issued for each donation)
By cheque payable to International Council of AIDS Service Organizations
Donations in cash or by direct deposit, wire transfer and email money transfer are available. You can write to gro.osaci@osaci or call 416-9210018 for details.
For any donations, please add “SOS Venezuela” in the comments.